2014-15: ACC Year in Review

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 17th, 2015

The 2014-15 season will go down as one of the most successful campaigns in the ACC’s long and illustrious history. It was the kind of year that commissioner John Swofford must have envisioned when the conference completed its last round of expansion. It was also important for the league to have this kind of performance after an extremely disappointing run last season, its first as a giant 15- team group featuring some of the biggest names in the sport. Before we put a bow on the season, let’s take a quick look at how the season played out with a review of some of the highlights and lowlights.

Highlights

Notre Dame celebrates its first ever conference tournament championship. (Evan Pike/USA TODAY Sports)

Notre Dame celebrates its first ever conference tournament championship.
(Evan Pike/USA TODAY Sports)

Regular Season Excellence. The ACC began the year with four schools ranked in the preseason AP top 10 and the league maintained a strong presence at the top of the rankings all season long, finishing with five of the final poll’s top 17 teams. In addition to Duke’s fine year – which included Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win, Virginia was also a mainstay at the top of the rankings, getting off to a 19-0 start on the way to the Cavaliers’ second straight ACC regular season title. Perhaps the Cavaliers would have joined Duke in Indianapolis at the Final Four if not for an untimely late season injury to Justin Anderson. The ACC’s surprise team was clearly Notre Dame, as Mike Brey’s program won its first conference tournament in school history in only its second year as an ACC member. The Irish’s near-upset of undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight may have been the best game of the entire NCAA Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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2014-15 Rush the Court All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on April 3rd, 2015

Compiling preseason All-America teams is a difficult task because nobody knows what is going to occur during the season. There will always be players who will fail to live up to expectations and there will always be under the radar types who will unexpectedly emerge to stardom. When our group of seven RTC pollsters selected their preseason All-America teams back in November; nobody could have guessed that only five of the 15 names on that list would be able to live up to the hype: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns. The only two players who were projected to be a first team All-American and finished there were Kaminsky and Okafor. The 10 players who we selected as preseason All-Americans who did not make our team: North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, Wichita State’s Ron Baker, Michigan’s Caris LeVert (spent much of conference play injured), Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker, Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Iowa State’s Georges Niang, and Nebraska’s Terran Petteway. They all had very productive seasons, but they were surpassed in achievements by the names that rose to the top of our list. Here are the 2014-15 RTC All-America Teams.

First Team All-America

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  • Frank Kaminsky, Senior, Wisconsin (consensus) (18.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 54.9% FG, 41.5% 3FG). Kaminsky wrapped up his collegiate career in dynamite fashion. The RTC National Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year has been the best player on a Wisconsin team that won the outright regular season Big Ten title, the Big Ten Tournament title, and the NCAA Tournament West Region. As the Badgers prepare for their final matchup with Kentucky on Saturday, it should be noted that Kaminsky has been excellent throughout March, recording 31 points in a March 1 win over fellow Final Four participant Michigan State, 27 points against Coastal Carolina in the round of 64, and 29 points against Arizona in the regional final.
  • Jahlil Okafor, Freshman, Duke (consensus) (17.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 66.8% FG). The ACC’s first-ever freshman to win league Player of the Year has been a sensation from the day he stepped foot on Duke’s campus. The top recruit from the Class of 2014 did not disappoint in what will almost absolutely be his only season in Durham. Okafor was a dominant offensive post presence during the Blue Devils’ 28-3 regular season, as he scored in double figures in 30 of the team’s 31 games. Duke enters the Final Four with national title aspirations — and with a player like Okafor at its disposal, it is easy to see how those dreams could come true.
  • D’Angelo Russell, Freshman, Ohio State (19.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.0 APG, 41.1% 3FG). Russell burst on to the scene in incredible fashion in what will likely be his only season in Columbus. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year topped 25 points five times during conference play, and along with his prolific scoring, he showcased some exceptional distribution skills. Ohio State was inconsistent as a team this season, but it always could rely on Russell to fill the stat sheet and act as a terrific playmaker.
  • Jerian Grant, Senior, Notre Dame (16.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 1.7 SPG, 47.8% FG). Grant’s return from an academic suspension that cost him the second semester of his junior season to lead the Irish to the Elite Eight was one of the stories of the year in college basketball. The senior guard lifted Notre Dame to a new level with his knack for hitting big shotsincredible passing, and overall leadership skills. Grant saved his best for the biggest games, which was evident by his 23-point, 12-assist performance in a January 28 victory over Duke and a 24-point, 10-assist effort in the ACC Tournament championship game victory over North Carolina.
  • Delon Wright, Senior, Utah (14.5 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 50.9% FG). Utah advanced to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2005 this season, and the biggest reason for that was Wright’s play. The Utes epitomized team basketball with their style, but it was Wright who was routinely called on to make the big play late in the big game. While Wright has exhausted his eligibility, his consistency and leadership will be etched into Larry Krystkowiak’s program for many years to come.

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Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015

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Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Notre Dame 81, #7 Wichita State 70

Posted by rtmsf on March 26th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

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Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton Are Moving On to the Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

  1. Time to recognize the IrishIt seems inconceivable that an ACC championship team could fly under the radar, but that is what Notre Dame has done for much of this season. While they were probably only the third best team in the ACC during the regular season, their ACC Tournament title was no fluke. The Irish might not get a ton of attention because they lack the name brand appeal in basketball that many of their ACC colleagues have — and to some degree they lack a recognizable star even if Jerian Grant is an All-American — but they have a good mix of experience, athleticism and size. That might not be enough to win on Saturday, but don’t be surprised to see this team in the game late.
  2. Take a minute to recognize Wichita State. Even though this team isn’t close to what it was last year, the Shockers managed to advance further than they did then thanks to a more favorable draw. We aren’t sure what Wichita State will bring back next year (primarily whether Gregg Marshall will return), but it has been a remarkable three-year run for the Shockers. They went to the Final Four in 2012 and nearly knocked off the eventual national champions. Last year they went undefeated for 35 games before running into an underseeded Kentucky team that was peaking at just the right time. This year was a bit more of a struggle than some may have expected, but they might have pulled off one of the most satisfying victories in the program’s history last weekend when they knocked off a Kansas program that refuses to play them in the regular season.
  3. The Irish are more than just Jerian GrantAs we mentioned earlier, the Irish probably have not received the respect they deserved this season. Grant has garnered some attention thanks to his family tree and some of his Vine-worthy highlights, but this team is a lot more than just the Jerian Grant Show. Zach Auguste provides a solid piece in the middle even if Saturday could be rough with Kentucky. Demetrius Jackson and Pat Connaughton both had big games for the Irish as well. All of them will need to have huge nights on Saturday if they hope to advance.

Star of the GameDemetrius Jackson, Notre Dame. There were so many ways to go with this today, which speaks to how well the entire Irish team played. We will go with Jackson, who almost played Fred VanVleet to a standstill (or maybe even outplayed him) with 20 points on 10 attempts while VanVleet scored 25 on 20 attempts. VanVleet needed to dominate for the Shockers to win this game, but he might have been outplayed by Jackson tonight.

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NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Thursday

Posted by Walker Carey & Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2015

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While the early round upsets and Cinderella stories are what make the NCAA Tournament unique to any other sporting event in the country, there is always something to be said about the best competing against the best. No more might that be true than this season’s Sweet 16, which feature arguably a legitimate “Top 16″ team pool … and it all gets started today. Here are four previews of Thursday’s games:

#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wichita State – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Cleveland) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren't often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren’t often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

The Irish and Shockers will meet Thursday night in what should be a very entertaining battle between two of the country’s best perimeter teams. Notre Dame and its four-guard lineup boasts one of the best scoring offenses in the country. USBWA first-team All-American Jerian Grant is one of the best offensive guards in the country. His scoring ability and ball distribution skills definitely makes him a player to watch each time he takes the court. For Notre Dame, sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia have each made a name for themselves this season. Jackson has greatly matured as Notre Dame’s floor leader on offense and his ball pressure on defense has been a greatly under appreciated facet of his game. Vasturia is the only Irish starter that does not have a scoring average in double figures, but his knack for hitting big shots coupled with some tenacious defense against some very good players (see his performance from last Saturday against Butler’s Kellen Dunham) has contributed to Notre Dame reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2003. When you think of the great glue guys in the country, Irish swingman Pat Connaughton has to be one of the first players who comes to mind. The captain has been an essential asset all season from his three-point shooting to his defensive rebounding to his overall leadership, Connaughton has been the heart of the Irish attack.

Wichita State is equally as talented on the perimeter. Junior point guard Fred VanVleet has had as good of an NCAA Tournament as anyone thus far, as he thoroughly outplayed Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell in the round of 64 before having his way with Kansas guards’ Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham in the round of 32. The other two Shockers perimeter players — Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton — each bring a unique skill set that have lifted the team all season. Baker has a knack for leading the scoring effort and hitting big shots. Cotton is an elite defender and his athleticism results in him constantly being a slashing threat on the offensive end. This is going to be a very fun game and you have to figure that both team’s perimeter groups will get theirs. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sweet Sixteen Storylines: Midwest and West Regionals

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 26th, 2015

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As we move into the first half of the Sweet Sixteen tonight in Cleveland and Los Angeles, let’s take a look at the top five storylines in the Midwest and West Regions.

Midwest Storylines

1. Is West Virginia actually a difficult matchup for Kentucky? The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. You’ve probably heard that refrain too many times already and you’ll hear it even more over the next 10 days. Some analysts have gone so far as to apply it to the Kentucky-West Virginia game that awaits us tonight. The thought is that the Mountaineers, which speed up opponents and force turnovers better than anybody else in the nation, will disrupt the Wildcats’ attack. But it’s almost as if that notion is more based on hope than supported by facts. The Wildcats take care of the ball – their opponents’ steal percentage ranks 19th nationally (that’s good), and the Wildcats have significantly cut down on silly turnovers as the season has progressed. Of course, they haven’t yet faced a team like West Virginia that is so relentless with its pressure either. But the Mountaineers also have their own flaws,particularly on the offensive end, and the idea that they present an especially difficult matchup for Kentucky because of its uniqueness is probably a fallacy.

Truth be told, Kentucky's contest against WVU might be a little easier than most expect. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

Truth be told, Kentucky’s contest against WVU might be a little easier than most expect. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

2. The history behind Calipari vs. Huggins. John Calipari and Bob Huggins first met as head coaches on January 7, 1993, when Huggins’ Cincinnati team beat Calipari’s UMass squad. They went on to do battle annually in Conference USA beginning in 2001, with Huggins still at Cincinnati and Calipari back from the NBA at Memphis. Huggins won the first five meetings between the two before Calipari broke through with is first win in 2003. To date, Huggins holds an 8-2 all-time record against the Kentucky coach, the best such record of any coach with a minimum three games against him. The most notable showdown between the two was exactly four years and 364 days ago, when Huggins’ Mountaineers upset Calipari’s group of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe in the 2010 East Regional Finals. Is there a takeaway from that night that pertains to this year? No, probably not. But the relationship between the two is a fun storyline heading into tonight. The two are reportedly close friends, and if that’s not enough, Huggins might not even be alive today if it wasn’t for Calipari’s cousin.

3. Which team in the Midwest Regional is the biggest threat to Kentucky? Despite all the West Virginia talk, it’s clear that Huggins’ team is the fourth best of the quartet remaining in the Midwest. Although Notre Dame barely survived Butler and Northeastern, both the Fighting Irish and Wichita State are hot. The Shockers took Indiana’s best shot and then thoroughly beat Kansas in Omaha to get to Cleveland. Which of the two would give Kentucky more problems? Probably Notre Dame, solely based on the possibility that the Fighting Irish could catch fire from the perimeter, just as they did in the ACC Tournament championship game against North Carolina. Plus, among players who receive meaningful minutes, Kentucky has five forwards taller than any Wichita State contributor.

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NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Walker Carey on March 23rd, 2015

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Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtcMWregion for reporting from Cleveland this week. Check out all of the regional resets for the Sweet Sixteen here.

New Favorite: #1 Kentucky. The new favorite is the old favorite, as there was nothing that happened over the first weekend that suggested a change. Kentucky is now an ungodly 36-0 after easily dispatching #16 Hampton in the round of 64 before overcoming a brief first half scare to ultimately blow past #8 Cincinnati in the round of 32. We all know about Kentucky’s talent level, its excellent defense and its superior depth, but can the Wildcats get to the Final Four with an unscathed record? Right now, it looks like the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Not much in standing in the way of Kentucky so far. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Not much in standing in the way of Kentucky so far. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Wichita State. It is difficult to call a team whose core (with the exception of Cleanthony Early) went 35-1 last year a “horse of darkness,” but the Shockers had to battle through an offensively potent #10 Indiana squad and intrastate rival #2 Kansas to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Wichita State proved during the first weekend that it is a much better team than the #7 seed it earned on Selection Sunday. Point guard Fred VanVleet was terrific all weekend. Shooting guard Ron Baker recovered from a shaky performance against Indiana to greatly contribute to the win over Kansas. Gregg Marshall’s squad also had an unlikely hero step up against the Jayhawks, as forward Evan Wessell (who averaged 4.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game on the season) tallied 12 points (4-of-6 threes) and collected nine rebounds.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): The way #8 Cincinnati defeated #9 Purdue. If you want to teach a course on how to NOT close out a basketball game, Purdue’s efforts in the final minute of Thursday’s round of 64 game against Cincinnati should be your textbook. The Boilermakers led by seven points with just 48 seconds left in regulation before allowing the offensively-challenged Bearcats to go on an unbelievable 10-3 run over to force overtime. Cincinnati ultimately emerged victorious in the overtime session, and after the final buzzer sounded, Bearcats associate head coach Larry Davis and his players appeared to be more stunned than anything else. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Game Analysis: Third Round, Saturday

Posted by RTC Staff on March 21st, 2015

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The last time this crew of programs laced up the sneakers, they provided us with a slate to remember. From last-second thrillers to overtime upsets that came out of left field, Thursday was quite simply one of the most electric opening days in NCAA Tournament history. Could history repeat itself? Here are eight previews of Saturday’s games.

#11 UCLA vs. #14 UAB — South Region Third Round (at Louisville, KY) — 12:10 PM ET on TBS.

Regardless of how they did it, Thomas Welch and UCLA are one step away from the Sweet 16. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Regardless of how they did it, Thomas Welch and UCLA are one step away from the Sweet Sixteen. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Steve Alford has finally figured out this NCAA Tournament thing. All you have to do is put together an entirely mediocre season, inexplicably make the Tournament field (and avoid the First Four while you are at it), have the refs blow a call in the final 20 seconds of your opener that propels your team to victory, then find a #14 seed waiting for you in the third round. That’s all! What a charmed five days it was for the Bruins, whose season suddenly has meaning. Thursday wasn’t so bad for UAB, either, as the Blazers toppled Iowa State in what should go down as the biggest upset of the second round (apologies to Georgia State). Two double-digit seeds now face off with a bid to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. UCLA does not play as quickly as Iowa State does (the Bruins are 113th in the country in possessions per game), but UAB will try to recreate the muddle that was Thursday’s game with the Cyclones. The Blazers dominated the glass (outrebounding Iowa State by 15), enabling them to survive their unimaginative offensive (41% field goal shooting and 3-of-18 shooting from three-point range). UCLA’s Kevon Looney and Tony Parker are unlikely to submit to a similar assault on the backboards in this game, so Jerod Haase’s team may have to promote other strengths. The problem for the Blazers is that there really aren’t many. They don’t shoot the ball well from the field, turnovers are frequently an issue, and their work on the defensive end has been average at best this season. All this isn’t intended to make UCLA out to be an unbeatable monster of a team (they aren’t), but at least on paper, UAB just is not that great a team. They did find a way to get it done against a team better than UCLA on Thursday, and the Bruins, as mentioned, are very far from perfect themselves. But while anything is possible, a return to expectation (albeit a smaller one than we had two days ago) should be in the cards here. Steve Alford and UCLA, say hello to the Sweet Sixteen.

The RTC Certified Pick: UCLA

#1 Kentucky vs. #8 Cincinnati – Midwest Region Round of 32 (in Louisville, KY) – at 2:40 PM EST on CBS

Karl-Anthony Towns was an absolute force to be reckoned with Thursday evening. Will Cincinnati's frontline fair any better? (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Karl-Anthony Towns was an absolute force to be reckoned with Thursday evening. Will Cincinnati’s frontline fair any better? (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Unbeaten Kentucky was not at its best Thursday, but it did not really matter as it still cruised to a 79-56 victory over Hampton. While Kentucky — as a whole — was a bit uneven against the Pirates, freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns turned in a phenomenal performance. Towns was clearly the best player on the court all evening, finishing with 21 points (8-of-12 FG), 11 rebounds, and three blocks in just 25 minutes of action. Sophomore guard Andrew Harrison and freshman guard Tyler Ulis were also very good in the victory, as they totaled a combined 25 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Even though Hampton is not considered an offensive juggernaut, Kentucky’s defensive performance was still impressive. The Pirates were held to just a 17-of-59 (28.8%) shooting performance, and only one player converted more than two field goals. Meanwhile, Cincinnati showcased its great resiliency in its win over Purdue on Thursday. The Bearcats trailed by seven with with 48.5 seconds to play before going on a 10-3 run to force overtime where they ultimately prevailed with a 66-65 victory. Cincinnati does not have any stars, but it received strong contributions from sophomore guard Troy Caupain (10 points and four assists), junior guard Farad Cobb (14 points), and junior forward Coreontae DeBerry (13 points). The Bearcats frustrated Purdue with tenacious defense all night, as the Boilermakers were just 26-of-72 (36.1%) from the field, including 4-of-26 (15.4%) from the perimeter. Cincinnati has played hard all season under some less than ideal circumstances, and its coaches and players deserve credit for making it this far. Unfortunately for them, this run will come to an end at the hands of Kentucky on Saturday. The Wildcats just have way too much talent across the board for this to really even be all that close. Expect Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein to establish themselves early and lead Kentucky to the Sweet 16 with a comfortable victory.

The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky Read the rest of this entry »

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region Analysis

Posted by Walker Carey on March 17th, 2015

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Throughout Tuesday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), South (11:00 AM), Midwest (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCMWregion).

Midwest Region

Favorite: #1 Kentucky (34-0, 18-0 SEC). The unbeaten Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament as not only the favorites in the Midwest Region but also for the entire tournament. John Calipari’s squad has been able to reach 34-0 due to its star power combined with its ability to play tremendously well as a unit. It will be utterly shocking if Kentucky is tripped up before reaching the Final Four. The reason why the Wildcats are such a lethal team is that they possess top-flight talent at each position. Their backcourt is loaded with sophomores Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. The insanely long and athletic front line is led by junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomores Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, and freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns. Toss in the fact that Kentucky’s veteran players have Final Four experience from a season ago and you will understand why the Wildcats are the overwhelming favorite to advance to Indianapolis.

Will John Calipari Be Smiling This Time Next Week? (AP)

John Calipari and the Wildcats have had a lot to smile about this season. (AP)

Should They Falter: #3 Notre Dame (29-5, 14-4 ACC). The ACC Tournament champion Fighting Irish enter the NCAA Tournament fresh off playing some of their best basketball of the year. Notre Dame possesses an elite offensive attack with multiple options that makes it a very tough team to defend. That attack is led by senior star guard Jerian Grant, an All-American senior who has the ability to take over a game each night out. Grant is the alpha dog star of Mike Brey’s team, but senior Pat Connaughton and sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia all strongly contribute to the Irish’s success. It will be a stunner if Kentucky loses at any point in this region, but if it does, look for Notre Dame to take home the Midwest Region trophy and advance to the Final Four.

Grossly Overseeded: #8 Cincinnati (22-10, 13-5 AAC). The Bearcats enjoyed a solid season but their résumé suggests that they should have been a double-digit seed. While Cincinnati had good victories over SMU (twice), San Diego State and NC State, it also had head-scratching losses to Nebraska, East Carolina and Tulane. The Bearcats finished the AAC season tied for third in the conference standings. Temple — the team they were tied with, and Tulsa, the team that finished one spot ahead of them — did not even earn bids to the NCAA Tournament. That’s not to suggest that Cincinnati didn’t deserve inclusion in the NCAA Tournament, but a #8 seed is very generous.

Grossly Underseeded: #7 Wichita State (28-4, 17-1 MVC). The Missouri Valley Conference does not provide many opportunities to pick up marquee victories, but Wichita State was able to pick up one on February 28 though when Gregg Marshall’s team got revenge from an early-season loss by topping Northern Iowa. The rest of the Shockers’ résumé was not very exciting, but they managed to win 28 games overall and only stumbled once in conference play prior to the MVC Tournament. Wichita State’s core is essentially the same (minus Cleanthony Early) as the one that started 34-0 last season. Gregg Marshall’s team is too talented and experienced to be a #7 seed and it would not be surprising at all to see it make a run to the second weekend.

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Rushed Reactions: Notre Dame 90, North Carolina 82

Posted by Matt Patton on March 15th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Mike Brey celebrates Notre Dame winning its first ever conference tournament. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

Mike Brey celebrates Notre Dame winning its first ever conference tournament. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

  1. Holy Run, Batman! Down nine with less than 10 minutes to play, Notre Dame looked like its goose was cooked. But the Fighting Irish rolled out a 26-3 run over the next seven minutes of action, scoring on 11 of their next 13 possessions (for those keeping score at home, their offensive efficiency over the run was a ridiculous 200 points per 100 possessions) to take control of the game and win its first ACC championship. Five players scored during the run, and Jerian Grant, who had carried the team to that point, only made one shot. The Irish’s only empty possessions were a Bonzie Colson travel and a missed three from Grant, and don’t forget that this went on in front of a crowd that looked and felt much like the Smith Center. Mike Brey’s team hit its open looks but their ball movement was impeccable and North Carolina’s offense simply couldn’t keep pace. No team could have kept pace tonight. Notre Dame’s offense was one of the most efficient in the country all season long, but this was the first stretch that inspired true fear. The Irish looked like a championship team ready to beat anybody in college basketball, and given the context, that run was the most impressive display of team basketball that I have seen this season.
  2. North Carolina Panicked. Not that you can blame them. As soon as I had a chance to tweet that the Fighting Irish were in trouble, the Tar Heels were already down by three. North Carolina had a lot of success in the first half by just putting up jumpers and letting Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks clean up the glass. Brice Johnson was also virtually unstoppable whenever he caught the ball within 10 feet of the basket. But here’s how North Carolina’s possessions ended when Notre Dame mounted its blistering comeback: Hicks free throws (made one, missed one); Joel Berry turnover; Hicks turnover; quick missed layup from Marcus Paige; Justin Jackson turnover; Meeks turnover; and Brice Johnson turnover. That’s five turnovers in six possessions after leaving a point on the board. The Heels only committed eight turnovers for the entire rest of the game. Just as Notre Dame’s run wasn’t the result of a single player’s play, the Tar Heels’ meltdown was a team effort.
  3. This Really is the New ACC. When the ACC completed its most recent expansion by snatching several Big East members for the second time, it was thought that Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville were best equipped to challenge the ACC bluebloods. But with this remarkable tournament run in Greensboro, it is Notre Dame that has become the first of the recent league additions to break through with an ACC championship. In fact, this is the first conference tournament title in school history for the Irish, a program which first joined a major conference in basketball some 20 years ago. Notre Dame’s title has some other historical significance as well. To capture this year’s trophy, Notre Dame had to beat both ACC bluebloods on back-to-back nights, and do it in the heart of Tobacco Road — a fact not lost on Brey, who mentioned it in both of his postgame press conferences. Only two other teams have ever beaten both Duke and North Carolina in Greensboro in the same ACC Tournament, exhibiting just how rare and difficult this feat was to pull off. This also marks the fourth consecutive year that neither the Tar Heels nor Blue Devils have won the ACC Tournament — the longest such drought in conference history. Interestingly, three of those four other champions were schools that are not part of the traditional ACC membership. Maybe we really are seeing a subtle changing of the guard in this conference, and with the next three ACC Tournaments held outside of the state of North Carolina, this is a trend that is likely to continue.

Player of the Game. When North Carolina went up by nine points in the second half, Jerian Grant was the only reason the Tar Heels’ lead wasn’t more than that. Of Notre Dame’s first 17 points in the second half, Grant was responsible for (directly or indirectly) 12 of them. He attacked the basket, going to the line three times in the first 10 minutes of the second half (and assisting on two of Notre Dame’s made field goals). His activity ensured that the game would not get out of reach, setting the stage for the game-changing run down the stretch. Grant finished with 24 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers. That’s outstanding. If you want to know why North Carolina only finished with 12 fast break points, you should credit Grant and backcourt mate Demetrius Jackson — other than one Brice Johnson dunk, North Carolina never managed to get out on its patented secondary break. Pat Connaughton also deserves some credit here. He ended up with 20 points on just nine shots. But with Grant’s heroics, Connaughton felt more like a supporting cast member who shone just outside of the spotlight.

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Notre Dame Looks for History Against North Carolina

Posted by Matt Patton & Brad Jenkins on March 14th, 2015

Notre Dame takes on North Carolina tonight in Greensboro for its first conference championship in program history. The game tips at 8:00 PM ET on ESPN. If the previous matchup — a 71-70 Irish win in Chapel Hill — was any indication, we’re due for a great game. Both teams are playing their best basketball of the season right now.

Jerian Grant needs an All-American performance for Notre Dame to beat North Carolina. (Grant Halverson, Getty Images)

Jerian Grant needs an All-American performance for Notre Dame to beat North Carolina. (Grant Halverson, Getty Images)

Brad: In the first meeting, North Carolina held a 21-6 edge in offensive rebounds. How can the smaller Irish avoid Tar Heel domination in the paint?

Matt: I’m not sure they can. North Carolina will have an even bigger size advantage than Duke did last night. Zach Auguste has to stay out of foul trouble and the Fighting Irish will need to send all five players to the glass on every North Carolina shot. The fact is that the Tar Heels are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Notre Dame needs to take care of the ball and try to force the Tar Heels into jump shots with long rebounds. On the other end of the floor, the mismatches may swing the other way. Auguste and Bonzie Colson are both much more comfortable playing away from the basket than any of North Carolina’s bigs. They should try to spread the floor to open up the driving lanes for Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson.

Notre Dame really limited Duke’s three-point shooting Friday night. Can the Tar Heels continue their hot shooting from behind the arc? 

Brad: The game plan will obviously be to attack the Irish interior, so Roy Williams hopes the Heels continue to be selective when taking shots from deep. By selective, we mean only open looks for Marcus Paige and maybe Justin Jackson. Unlikely to make 50 percent of its threes again tonight, North Carolina should probably keep its attempts in the 10-to-12 range.

Back in early January, Notre Dame prevailed in the Smith Center primarily due to its 10-of-23 shooting performance on threes. Can they repeat such accuracy when playing their third game in three days?

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Rushed Reactions: Notre Dame 74, Duke 64

Posted by Matt Patton on March 14th, 2015

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Notre Dame Advanced to Its First ACC Championship Game (USA Today Images)

Notre Dame Advanced to Its First ACC Championship Game (USA Today Images)

  1. Notre Dame absolutely dominated the first half. The Irish hit some unbelievably tough shots and made Jahlil Okafor try to beat them on his own. As a result, Duke’s other players went 4-of-16 from the field and committed seven turnovers. Notre Dame may be the only team in the country with five guys who can consistently hit shots (although Duke has some lineups that also fit that description). The Irish smothered Duke by forcing the guards to play deeper than usual and fronting Okafor. They also hit shots, lots of them. Mike Brey’s team had a total of five and-ones in the first half alone. Five. When Duke went to its zone, Bonzie Colson just crushed the Blue Devils from the high post. When they went back to man, Demetrius Jackson got to the rim with incredible ease. Even in the second half when Duke started making its eventual run, Notre Dame’s ability to get to the rim (and the free throw line) felt like the reason Duke never got it back to a single-possession game.
  2. Demetrius Jackson is destined for great things. This may be an obvious statement (Jackson was a McDonald’s All-American, after all), but Jackson is a fantastic young player. He brings an athletic dimension to Mike Brey’s team that has been somewhat missing over the years. Jackson frequently broke Duke’s three-quarter court pressure like no one was there with his quick bursts of speed and playground dribbling moves in traffic. He also got to the rim with ease, finishing the evening with five assists and only one turnover in 39 minutes of action. If there’s a reason to still be bullish on the Irish next season without Jerian Grant, it’s because the sophomore Jackson is ready to take over the team.
  3. Mike Krzyzewski was remarkably calm. Coach K has a reputation of being curt and snippy in his pressers after Duke losses, but other than a defensive response to a question about last year’s team not meeting expectations, he was remarkably measured. I have a few theories on this attitude. The most likely idea is that he felt like Duke would have won the game if Quinn Cook hadn’t been gassed (Krzyzewski said on Thursday that Cook had been fighting off an illness). Cook went 1-of-10 from three on mostly good looks (0-of-8 in the second half) and he did a good job defending Jerian Grant, but it just looked like he wasn’t playing at 100 percent. The other theory is that Krzyzewski really liked the way Justise Winslow and Okafor fought back after horrible first halves.

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